Hundreds of hospitals around the country, including more than two dozen in Tennessee, have joined litigation against the makers of opioid painkillers. But most hospitals are staying out, even as they claim to suffer losses related to the opioid epidemic.
Hospital costs stem from extended stays by patients who have addiction-related heart infections that require weeks of IV antibiotics. Their stays averaged $107,000, with only 14% covered by insurance, according to the Tennessee suit.
"We just want to make certain that in all of this settlement business, that hospitals are recognized as maybe the most impacted of all of the care units in this crisis," says Gordon Gee, president of West Virginia University and head of the WVU hospital system.
Gee and former Ohio Governor John Kasich formed a nonprofit to encourage more hospitals to consider their own suits.
But unlike the thousands of cities, counties and states that have piled on to the consolidated federal case, hospitals face some risk in suing drug makers.
"I suspsect there are some hospitals and others in the caregiving business that are afraid that if they get into it, those who are on the defense side will point out that maybe hospitals were really the problem," Gee says. "But of course I think the evidence is clear that the hospitals were not the problem."
Gee, who is the former chancellor of Vanderbilt University, says he's "a risk-taker." But he wants more hospitals to join the litigation, adding "there's always safety in mass."
Top Hospitals Stay Out
But in Tennessee, many of the large hospital systems, including Vanderbilt Medical Center, are unmoved.
"When we asked our members, we basically had two camps," says Craig Becker, CEO of the Tennessee Hospital Association. "One said they wanted to get into the lawsuit, and that was probably the minority of the group. But the majority said no, this is one that you all need to stay away from."
Those that decided to join Tennessee's suit include the Tennova hospitals, owned by Franklin-based Community Health Systems, and the network of hospitals in northeast Tennessee owned by Ballad Health. Both systems have been under financial pressure, with Ballad cutting services at some sites and getting more aggressive with bill collections. Community Health has been selling off hospitals, including one named in the suit.
Even hospitals that won't sue are still positioning for payouts related to broader settlements. But Don Barrett says they shouldn't hold their breath. He led the state lawsuits against the tobacco companies that led to the master settlement, which sent most of the money to the states. Hospitals didn't join that litigation.
"I guess they thought that the states were going to take care of them, that these local governments were going to take this money and give it to the hospitals where it would do some good," he says. "Of course they didn't give them a damn penny."
Now Barrett's Mississippi-based firm is recruiting hospitals to join state-based litigation. They've filed suits in Arizona, Alabama, Kentucky and Texas. They intend to make their own claims in state court instead of waiting for money to flow through the consolidated federal lawsuits.
"We're not going to allow that to happen this time," he says. "We can't afford to allow it to happen this time."